A fascinating look at the Founding Fathers! Presidential historian and first permanent director of the Dole Institute, Richard Norton Smith, brought our first three presidents to life and helped us understand these men’s important contributions to the start of our nation.
Part One: George Washington
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Washington served as a general and commander-in-chief of the colonial armies during the American Revolution, and later became the first president of the United States, serving from 1789-1797. Washington’s first term in office was dominated by shaping the role of the president. He appointed the first presidential cabinet, oversaw measures that Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton encouraged for solid financial grounding, and designated a site for the nation’s new capital. Washington’s second term centered on foreign affairs, and he wisely let his preference for neutrality be known. He dealt firmly with the Whiskey Rebellion and sent Chief Justice John Jay to England to negotiate an unpopular peace treaty with the British. He also asserted his distaste for emerging political parties, which were coming to dominate the American system of government. Washington enjoyed three years of retirement at Mt. Vernon before his death on December 14, 1799.
Part Two: John Adams
John Adams was born in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1735. A Harvard-educated lawyer, he early became identified with the patriot cause. During the Revolutionary War he served in France and Holland in diplomatic roles, and helped negotiate the treaty of peace. In 1788, he returned from the Court of St. James to be elected Vice President under Washington. In 1796, Adams became the second president of the U.S. During his presidency, a war between the French and British was causing political difficulties for the U.S. Adams’ administration focused its diplomatic efforts on France, whose government had suspended commercial relations. Adams sent three commissioners to France, but the French refused to negotiate unless the U.S. agreed to pay what amounted to a bribe. When this became public knowledge, the nation broke out in favor of war. By 1800, Adams had become significantly less popular with the public. He lost his re-election campaign with only a few less electoral votes than Thomas Jefferson. Adams died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of American independence.
Part Three: Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 in Albemarle County, Virginia, inheriting from his father, a planter and surveyor, some 5,000 acres of land, and from his mother, a Randolph, high social standing. He studied at the College of William and Mary, then read law. In 1772, he married Martha Wayles Skelton and took her to live in his partly constructed mountaintop home, Monticello. As the “silent member” of Congress, Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. In years following, he labored to make its words a reality in Virginia. Most notably, he wrote a bill establishing religious freedom, enacted in 1786. As a reluctant candidate for President in 1796, Jefferson came within three votes of election. But through a flaw in the Constitution, he became Vice President, although an opponent of President Adams. When Jefferson assumed the Presidency in 1801, the crisis in France had passed. He slashed Army and Navy expenditures, cut the budget, eliminated the tax on whiskey, reduced the national debt by a third, and purchased the Louisiana Territory. Jefferson retired to Monticello, and then died on July 4, 1826.
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